One of the themes of the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum was the so-called fourth industrial revolution. In a space of around 250 years mankind went from the first industrial revolution to the fourth one. Some claim that this fourth industrial revolution will change in a fundamental way the way we live, the way we work and the way we interact with each other.
The first industrial revolution which spanned from the mid-1700s to sometime in the first half of the 1800s, mechanised production through the use of water and steam power. The second one spanned about 100 years and created the concept of efficient mass production through the use of electricity. The third industrial revolution built on the second one as it automated production through the use of electronics and information technology.
The fourth industrial revolution will again build on the previous one by making use of information technology and integrating it with telecommunications, our physical environment and human behaviour. Hence the coining of terms such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
It is not yet known what the impact of this fourth industrial revolution will be. I believe that as the previous industrial revolutions unfolded, neither did the captains of industry, the political class and the academia of the time have an inkling of how things would turn out. And in my opinion, even those industrial revolutions altered in a very significant way human relationships and the way the people lived and worked.
Just think of the impact of electricity or the telephone on our lives. Or just think of the wealth they generated on a global scale. This year we celebrate 15 years of Facebook. The latter is the social media of choice to most people. I do not think that Mark Zuckerberg had any idea of what Facebook would become in such a short span of time.
What makes the fourth industrial revolution so different is that developments are occurring at a much faster pace than in the previous ones. The first two took up about a century each. The third lasted around 60 years. One may think that the fourth industrial revolution is just an extension of the third one, as it is being driven by information technology. It is not because the faster pace of change is causing disruption across the globe as it changes entire production systems.
Let us take a few practical examples. Digital printing is gradually replacing the idea of highly automated production lines by having a totally automated machine capable of producing unique versions of a product, customised for the individual who shall be using it. Software is helping engineers to develop new materials which would otherwise have taken decades to develop.
We can add to this technology that will store energy, which so far has not been possible or self-driving cars or virtual office assistants. In our daily lives this has meant the ability to shop online or the ability to access new products. It is expected that, like the previous industrial revolutions, this one will also help to improve our quality of life.
However, there are many who fear that the fourth industrial revolution will not really lead to an improved quality of life for all, as it is likely to lead to greater income inequality. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. The middle class may actually become a thing of the past and aspirations of social and occupational mobility may remain unsatisfied.
In fact there are those who claim that this is the biggest difference between the third and the fourth industrial revolution. The third one has led to greater democracy, to greater mobility, to an expansion of trade, to greater social cohesion. The fourth industrial revolution may reverse all this, as we may see the re-emergence of the concept of the winner takes it all, both among businesses as well in society at large.
Possibly, more than ever, we need to ensure that the common good becomes entrenched as a fundamental principle in economic management, if we wish that the fourth industrial revolution really serves to improve the quality of life of people all over the world.